7 Aug 2020

Frederick Douglass: Moral Compass of the Republican Party

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: American Empire, Black History, Contemporary Ethics, Culture, Frederick Douglass, Love, Politics, Race Relations, Slavery
Frederick Douglass, ca. 1879. George K. Warren. (National Archives Gift Collection) Exact Date Shot Unknown NARA FILE #: 200-FL-22 WAR & CONFLICT BOOK #: 113

Thus says the LORD: Act with justice and righteousness, and deliver from the hand of the oppressor anyone who has been robbed. And do no wrong or violence to the alien, the orphan, and the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place” (Jeremiah 22.3).

Frederick Douglass, the Man of the Hour?

Most Americans have at least heard of Frederick Douglass. Escaped slave. Crusader against slavery. Brilliant orator. Man of conscience. Many do not realize that he championed the rights of all people not just blacks.

In the wake of the Civil War he was full of hope for what the future held. But by the time of his death on February 5, 1895, he saw all of the blood bought gains of the Civil War and in Reconstruction purposefully undermined in the white “Redemption” of the South.

Douglass is famous for his What to the Slave is Your Fourth of July speech. Douglass became a staunch Republican largely because of Abraham Lincoln and the Reconstruction Acts. He believed that the Republican Party was guided by a moral compass.

But by 1895 he changed his mind.

The State of the Union

Thus says the LORD of hosts: Render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; and do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another. But they refused to listen, and turned a stubborn shoulder, and stopped their ears in order not to hear.” (Zechariah 7.9-10)

On January 9, 1894, about a year before he died, Douglass gave what may be one of his most powerful and important speeches in Washington DC itself. By this time he had become disillusioned with America but it was the Republican Party, which he had sold his soul to after the War, that disappointed him. The Civil Rights legislation passed during Reconstruction had been attacked (and even declared unconstitutional) by the Supreme Court, lynching had become a national pastime, the status of African Americans was even more precarious than in the days of slavery.

Douglass’s speech was called “the Lessons of the Hour.” I recently read through it in Speeches of Frederick Douglass: A Critical Edition back in February this year.

In many ways this remarkable speech addresses us even to this very day. Frederick Douglass may have been an old man by this time but he was not going to go quietly into the night. The Republican Party had become “a party of money rather than a party of morals” he states forthrightly. In fact the party had drifted so far off course it could no longer claim to be the party of Lincoln.

The Grand Old Party had traded its moral compass for mammon.

He begins by skewering white America over the so called “Negro problem.” It is not a “negro problem” at all. It is a white “epidemic of mob law and persecution” problem. The progress of Reconstruction was gone. America had in fact regressed. He highlights the violence that covers the land against blacks.

Not a breeze comes to us now from the late rebellious States that is not tainted and freighted with negro blood. It is thirst for blood and its rage for vengeance, the mob has blindly, boldly and defiantly supplanted sheriffs and the police …

We claim to be a Christian country and a highly civilized nation, yet, I fearlessly affirm that there is nothing in the history of savages to surpass the blood chilling horrors and fiendish excesses perpetuated against the colored people by the so-called enlightened Christian people of the South. It is commonly thought that only the lowest and most disgusting birds, such as buzzards, vultures and hyenas, will gloat over and prey upon dead bodies, but the Southern mob in its rage feeds its vengeance by shooting, stabbing and burning when their victims are dead!

Surely such language evokes the memory of the that famous Fourth of July speech in 1852. Clearly, Douglass did not think America was great at that time.

Douglass then brilliantly, and systematically, deconstructs and exposes the justifications of lynching. Lynching, he said, serves the purpose of undoing the gains made by blacks following the Civil War. It was a means of social control.

The myth of black violence was simply a lie invented to justify systematic murder. Douglass declares, “I reject the charge bought against the negro as a class.

What is is primary evidence?

The slaveholders themselves!

all through the late war, while slave masters of the South were absent from their homes in the field of rebellion, with bullets in their pockets, treason in their hearts, broad blades in their blood stained hands … with the vile purpose of perpetuating the enslavement of the negro, their wives, their daughters, their sisters and their mothers were left in the absolute custody of these same negros and during all those long four years of terrible conflict, when the negro had every opportunity to commit the abominable crime now alleged against him, there was never a single instance of such a crime reported or charged against him.”

The truth however was not black violence but white violence before the war has now been extended and is the “state of the union.’

Slavery itself, you will remember, was a system of legalized outrage upon the black women of the South, and no white man was ever shot, burned, or hanged for availing himself of all the power that slavery gave him.”

Black men were portrayed as violent sexual monsters and the “state of the union” was that America allowed that myth to justify the barbaric lynchings sweeping across the South. But in reality it was the lynchers who, like the slaveholders before, held life in contempt. “They have never had any respect for human life.

Their institutions [slavery] have taught them no respect for human life and especially the life of the negro. It has in fact taught them absolute contempt for his life … A dead negro is with them a common jest. They care no more for a negro’s right to live than they care for his rights to liberty or his rights to the ballot.

There was no lynching plague before the War. Rather it appeared on the scene only when black people demanded to be heard, to be seen, to be a part of society following the War and entered American society during Reconstruction. Stripping those rights in the court was one part of the attack and the mob of lynchers was the second.

Douglass was a champion for rights for all: African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and women. He never stopped growing in the broadness of his mind, nor his commitment to justice.

Party of Money Rather than a Party of Morals

But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream

(Amos 5.24)

He then challenges Americans as a whole and Republicans in particular. Why have they allowed these moral outrages to take place? Why have they sat idly by while the blood bought advances of justice from the 1860s and early 1870s are overturned?

Republicans have, Douglass lamented, betrayed Lincoln. The nation has “done away with that noble and just idea of Abraham Lincoln, that our government should be of the people, by the people, and for the people, and for ALL [sic] the people.” They have become moral cowards and surrendered to the “Lost Cause.

Republicans had turned a blind eye to “Southern power plays” that are, presently, as egregious as before their “rebellious war.” The power plays was the move to disenfranchise blacks across the South as the supposed answer to the “negro problem.” Republicans, Douglass declared,

have become a party of money rather than a party of morals.

Wow! They had sold their souls to mammon, for the sake of monetary gain.

There is no Negro problem, “he is alright, rather the problem is the “Lyncher and Mobocrat.” Injustice fueled by pure race hatred is the problem. The Republicans, Douglass charged, have a moral problem. They have turned their backs on justice for the sake of money by appeasing the mob violence across the South.

Near the end of his speech (which goes on for 50 pages), says something that could be said today like much of his speech.

There is nothing to which prejudice is not equal in the way of perverting the truth and inflaming the passions of men … Put away your race prejudice.”

This is the lesson of the hour, our prejudice twists our minds so much we cannot even recognize truth standing or being spoken in front of us. Like the Republicans of the 1890s, we rationalize, say how we set the slaves “free,” turn a blind eye and most of all refuse to do anything that will cost our ‘bottom line.” Douglass, a committed Lincoln Republican, calls on the Republican Party of 1895,

give us hope that the loyal Republican party may return to its first born.”

As Douglass brings his epic speech to Washington to a close, he noted that the United States does not have a “negro problem.” The United States has a justice problem. More basically it has morality problem.

Has the Republican Party lost its moral compass? I find Douglass to be a man who pricks the conscience.

One Response to “Frederick Douglass: Moral Compass of the Republican Party”

  1. Ammar Saheli Says:


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